Race Relations Cycle- robert Park Robert Ezra

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Race Relations Cycle- Robert Park

Robert Ezra Park (1864-1944) was a member of the Chicago school of sociology and had a major hand in establishing the discipline of sociology in the United States. One of his many contributions was his "race relations cycle," the first systematic attempt to account for the origins and evolution of group relationships. Park posited four stages in the development of group relations: competition, conflict, accommodation, and assimilation.

When groups first come into contact (through immigration, conquest, and so forth), relations tend to be competitive and conflictual. Park (1969) saw competition between individuals and groups as fundamental and universal. In a world of finite resources, all living things compete to satisfy their needs and survive. Competition is impersonal and unconscious and does not require contact or face-to-face interaction. Competition becomes conflict when competitors become aware of each other. "Competition … is continuous and impersonal, conflict is intermittent and personal" (p. 574). Group conflict requires some form of ethnocentric awareness of group differences—some sense of "we" versus "they"—and is a struggle for control of the other group—for resources, status, or other scarce commodities.

Conflict between groups is disruptive and costly and will tend to move toward an accommodation or an institutionalized, stable relationship. Accommodations can take a variety of forms, including slavery and other forms of institutionalized discrimination. An accommodation organizes social relations and encourages social attitudes and norms that permit groups to coexist and conduct their daily activities.

Accommodations may persist for long periods of time, may be disrupted and dissolve into further periods of conflict, or they may evolve into assimilation, which is "a process of interpenetration and fusion in which persons and groups acquire the memories, sentiments, and attitudes of other persons or groups, and, by sharing their experience and history, are incorporated with them into a common cultural life" (Park 1969, p. 735). Thus, assimilation merges two or more cultures into a single, shared set of traditions and memories.

Assimilation does not produce uniformity or sameness but rather a "unity of experience and orientation, out of which may develop a community of purpose and action" (Park 1969, p. 737). Competition and episodes of conflict continue after assimilation but are organized along lines other than those of ethnicity, culture, or race, such as class, for example.

Although his ideas have been extremely influential, they are not without their limitations. Park’s theory has been criticized for its lack of specificity in the time frame required for assimilation and, more importantly perhaps, in its lack of detail with regard to the process of assimilation. On the other hand, Park’s work initiated a tradition of theory and research that has guided the American sociology of immigration and assimilation for the past eight decades.

The cycle can be illustrated in the history of black—white relations in the United States. The earliest period of competition and conflict in colonial days was followed by the institutionalization of slavery, an accommodation that began to emerge in the 1660s and ended in 1865 at the end of the American Civil War. After a brief period of renewed conflict (Reconstruction), black—white relations were stabilized in a second accommodation: de jure segregation, which ended in the 1960s. Since that time, black—white relations have returned to conflict and struggle. There are some signs of assimilation (e.g., rates of intermarriage are increasing, even though they remain a tiny percentage of all marriages), but continuing sharp distinctions in group identity and cultural traditions persist, reinforced by continuing racial exclusion and persistent racial inequalities of income and wealth.

While black—white relations have not (yet?) evolved to assimilation, examples of the completed cycle can be found in the histories of other American groups. European immigrants who arrived between the 1820s and 1920s competed for jobs, housing, and status and faced intense rejection, prejudice, and discrimination. Accommodations gradually emerged, and the descendents of the immigrants eventually assimilated and achieved parity with national norms in terms of occupations, income, and other measures of equality. Various researchers (e.g., Alba 1990; Gallagher 2001) have found that white ethnic identity is currently in its "twilight" and that descendents of European immigrants currently share identity, memories, and traditions with other white Americans.

Since the 1960s, the United States has received a second great wave of immigration. These immigrants are extremely diverse and compete for jobs and position in every niche of American society from high (e.g., scientists and surgeons) to low (e.g., day laborers and nannies), including work in the irregular economy (e.g., piecework in garment industry "sweatshops" and sex workers). Some analysts (e.g., Portes and Rumbaut, 2001) argue that some contemporary immigrant groups will not assimilate into the dominant culture but into the marginalized urban underclass, where they will learn cultures, values, and traditions that invert or challenge the dominant culture. Evidence for this assertion includes the high rates of unemployment and poverty and low levels of education for some groups, even those with substantially large third generations. For example, some recent immigrant groups, such as Mexicans and Haitians, bring low levels of education and job skills and take jobs marginal to the mainstream economy. In an era of hardening social mobility and increasing inequality, these immigrant groups and their descendents may find themselves permanently excluded from the mainstream job market.

Other analysts believe that this viewpoint amounts to little more than "blaming the victim" and present evidence (e.g., Bean and Stevens 2003) that suggests that the descendents of current immigrants will acquire the values and traditions of the larger society and, much like the descendents of the first mass immigration, gradually assimilate. For example, Alba et al. (2002) report that the tendency to speak English rather than the "mother tongue" at home increases by generation for recent immigrant groups. They found that the percentage of second-generation group members who reported that they spoke only English at home ranged from a low of 8 percent for Dominicans to a high of almost 80 percent for Filipinos. For the third generation, the percentage speaking only English at home rose for every group and ranged from a low of 50 percent for Dominicans to a high of almost 100 percent for Japanese and Filipinos. This pattern of language assimilation is quite consistent with the experiences of the descendants of the great wave of European immigrants who arrived between the 1820s and 1920s and may denote a movement of these groups toward higher levels of inclusion and assimilation. The ultimate fate of these groups—whether they will move toward assimilation or be caught up in a constant cycle of conflict and accommodation—will not be known for some time. As Park himself noted, immigration can be very fast but assimilation is by nature slow.


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